Early release of prisoners in state lockups is under consideration as the California Department of Corrections announced the first inmate tested positive for the coronavirus in Lancaster.
The inmate at California State Prison in Lancaster and has been in isolation since March 19, when he reported not feeling well. He was tested the following day and results were received Sunday.
“The patient is in stable condition and is being treated on-site,” the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement released Sunday.
Five state prison staff members have also tested positive — two each at the California Institution for Men in Chino and California State Prison in Sacramento and one other at Folsom State Prison.
“We are working to provide updated testing numbers on our website this week,” the agency’s statement said.
Movement will be restricted at the Lancaster prison while an investigation is conducted to determine the source of contact, and those deemed at risk will be quarantined, according to the CDCR.
The announcement came a day after a state task force held discussions about steering California’s incarcerated population through the storm of the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller on Friday ordered the task force effort during a telephone status hearing, the Los Angeles Times reported. The hearing was for updates on prison mental health but instead dwelt almost entirely on COVID-19.
Lawyers for the governor’s office, corrections department, Department of State Hospitals and those representing prisoners in long-running litigation over prison conditions met, The Times reported.
At Mueller’s direction, the prison population is on the table, said plaintiff’s attorney Michael Bien.
After a decade of sustained effort to reduce health-threatening overcrowding, California’s prison system remains at 134% capacity, with more than 114,000 inmates in state prisons built to hold 85,000. Another 8,700 prisoners are in camps and contracted private lockups.
Despite mounting pressure from civil liberties groups such as the ACLU and advocates for inmates, prison systems across the U.S. have thus far resisted calls to reduce their COVID-19 threats by releasing prisoners. Jail systems, however, have adopted such programs, including those in Los Angeles, Alameda, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has raised the bail amount for booking inmates to $50,000 from $25,000, to increase the number of people getting citations rather than booked into jail.
Villanueva’s department had also reduced the jail population by 6% as of last Friday, in part to prepare for the need to set up quarantine areas. Those jail numbers had not been updated as of late Monday afternoon.
“We anticipate the count is going to go further down,” Cmdr. Jason Wolak of the Sheriff’s Department’s Custody Division told The Times on Friday. “The reason why we’re doing it is so we can have flexibility in the jail in case we’re going to lose a part of it (to quarantine).”
Late Monday afternoon, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California released a copy of an executive order signed Monday by the chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors calling for the sheriff, the departments of Health Services and Mental Health and the Office of Inspector General to immediately assess “all necessary and appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jails … and make any orders necessary for that purpose.”
The ACLU of Southern California called the order a major step.
“We urge the county health officer to issue an order as soon as possible, as this will allow the sheriff to exercise his statutory authority to build on the steps he has already taken by dramatically lowering the jail population. This will protect not only people in the jails but the community as a whole,” said Jacob Reisberg, jails condition advocate for the civil rights group.
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